Neal's the real deal

Karlton Neal was standing on the sidelines during a recent UT football practice when he saw fellow defensive end Constantin Ritzmann crumple to the turf, clutching his left knee.

''I didn't know how seriously he was hurt until I found out after practice that it could be very bad,'' Neal recalls. ''That's when I told myself, 'It's time for me to get ready. It's time for me to make a bigger step up.' ''

And that's precisely what he has done ... step up to fill the void. Ritzmann's injury proved to be a season-ending torn ACL, so Neal suddenly finds himself in the starting lineup for Saturday's oppener against Wyoming.

''It didn't change my approach much, practice-wise,'' the 6-4, 250-pounder says. ''I always go full-speed, try to do everything correct and learn from my mistakes. The only change was mentally. Now I've got to get myself really focused. I'm still a young guy and I'm going to make mistakes but I'm trying to limit them.''

He's also trying to limit the butterflies in his stomach. Knowing his first collegiate start is imminent has him struggling to stay calm.

''The excitement level so far is going up,'' he concedes. ''It's definitely going to be exciting -- my parents and my folks at home finally getting to watch me play. They've always told me, 'Give it two years, and something's going to happen.' I've prayed about it and now it's happening.

''It's unfortunate that it had to come at the cost of Constantin Ritzmann but one man's loss is another man's fortune in some ways. You've got to take strides and you've got to go with it.''

After redshirting in 2000 and playing sparingly in 2001, Neal finds himself carrying a much higher profile. Media types are approaching him with increasing regularity.

''This is the first time I've had this many interviews,'' he says. ''I probably had three or four interviews up to this day, and this is my third year here.''

Although he was voted Most Improved Defensive Player of spring practice, Neal remained stuck behind senior ends Ritzmann and Omari Hand through the first two weeks of preseason drills. Strangely enough, Ritzmann offered some prophetic encouragement just a few days before suffering his season-ending injury.

''Constantin for some reason told me, 'If one of us should go down, you're in there,' '' Neal recalls. ''It just so happened that it happened this weekend. I didn't want it to happen this way but it did, so I've been prepared for it.''

Neal is prepared, all right. Even defensive coordinator John Chavis concedes as much.

''We were real excited with where Karlton was even before the injury,'' the coordinator says. ''He grew up a lot during spring practice, and he's an outstanding athlete. It's an opportunity for Karlton, and I think he'll make the most of it.''

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